If you like “sensuous coming-of-age stories” – and who doesn’t? – there’s a novel out about George Frideric Handel’s life in the closet.
If the author hoped to create a Twitter storm around the idea of a homosexual Handel, she’s almost twenty years too late. Handel regularly features at the top of lists of LGBTQ composers, and his gayness was cited as a fact on which musicologists “seem to agree” in the New York Times.
Besides, didn’t the composer himself remove all remaining doubts by cowriting a Pet Shop Boys song in 2012?
Fact or gossip?
I admit that I myself have frequently enjoyed repeating this juicy piece of knowledge. However, I almost never got the shocked response I was hoping for. Probably because people consider a certain level of gayness self-evident in an era where all gentlemen of means chose to dress like Liberace.
It seems I owe all these people an apology. Because I recently decided to check the facts instead of acting like a common gossipmonger. And I found that the idea of a homosexual Handel is completely baseless.
Why Handel could have been gay
The rumors around Handel’s sexuality mainly originate from the book Handel as Orpheus by Ellen T. Harris. Although I should immediately add that Ms. Harris herself has since declared that the belief that she dubbed Handel a homosexual is “ridiculous”.
So, what did she write in her book? Mainly that:
- Handel spent a lot of his early years loitering in Italian courts and English country estates that were regularly frequented (if not run) by men with same-sex desires.
- the works which he wrote there (the Italian cantatas and theatrical works such as Acis and Galatea) contain homosexual subtexts, for instance in the way they avoid identifying the gender of the person being lovingly serenated.
Add that to the undisputable fact that Handel remained a bachelor all his life, and one might start to wonder …
Why Handel wasn’t gay
In two articles on Handel’s social circles in Rome and London, Thomas McGeary convincingly buried the idea that Handel was surrounded by homosexual men.
There’s just not a shred of evidence that places like Cannons or Burlington House were hotspots of homoerotic activity. And there are no contemporary sources that link people like Alexander Pope or even the conspicuously named John Gay to homosexual behaviors.
You might think that such an absence of first-hand accounts is due to 18th century squeamishness about the love that dare not speak its name. But you would be wrong. At least in England, accusing public figures of sodomy was a national pastime. And as a foreign-born composer of ‘effeminate’ Italian operas, with strong ties to the not universally loved German royal family, Handel would have made an ideal victim.
That Handel wasn’t gay doesn’t make him straight
Although it’s a lot less ludicrous, this discussion bears some resemblance to the claim that Beethoven was black. Just like people from African descent, the LGBTQ community could use more high-profile icons in the domain of classical music. It’s almost a pity that historical evidence doesn’t allow them that satisfaction.
However, there’s also an important difference. While a non-black Beethoven is evidently a white Beethoven, a not openly gay Handel is not necessarily a heterosexual Handel. It’s just a Handel of whom we don’t know the sexual inclinations.
That goes for almost all composers before the late 19th century. Taking on a homosexual identity was literally unthinkable in those days. So it’s impossible to say which way their deepest desires went.
And does that matter? Is there such a thing as gay music? That’s worth a wholly separate discussion.
For the moment, I’ll leave you with a piece of gossip that is verified. In the privacy of his own home, the composer of the manliest oeuvre of the 19th century preferred lace corsets to steel armor and winged helmets.
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9 thoughts on “Was Handel Gay?”
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That was an enjoyable read. And rather funny too. I did wonder the same upon learning that he never married or was even involved with women. But there is no record of him being with men either, that we know of. It seems that music was one and only love.
It’s interesting to note that he never got together with Susannah Ciber, a singer he was clearly fond of and for whom he wrote many of his opera parts. And there was the opportunity, as her marriage was tempestuous and she had an affair, but he didn’t take it. He was involved in Italian operas for years, which would have afforded him the opportunity for sex with theatre people, men and women, but there’s no evidence that he took it. So it was not for lack of opportunity.
You omit to add that he was also a very religious man (a Lutheran) so even if he were gay, he’d have repressed it even to himself. Some say that St. Paul did this and that his secret sexual orientation was the “thorn in the flesh” in 2 Cor. 12:7. Paul was clearly against homosexuality in his writings, consistent with the Jewish tradition he came from, but it’s been speculated that he thus regarded himself as sinful and in need of redemption. Strong arguments against homosexuality by preachers are sometimes viewed as evidence of extreme self-repression. Closeted gay preacher Ted Haggard is an example of this phenomenon. Was Handel this way also, rendering him celibate? We’ll never know.
Celibacy does not necessarily imply homosexuality. There are many reasons for it occurring, both spiritual and secular (e.g., “incels”). I suspect one reason for him not marrying was his dedication to his music. Another was poor finances. Marrying meant having a big family in those days (Bach had children in the double digits), and children screaming and running around would have been a great distraction for the maestro, who needed quiet to compose. Also, Handel could not afford it for a long time as his operas were not doing that well – but when he later became a wealthy man from the oratorios, he was 53 years old and was fixed in life as a bachelor, and the sexual drive of youth perhaps by that time had left him and he was fixed in his ways.
He poured all his time and energy into music. Freud would call that sublimation of the repressed sexual drive. I think there’s something to that argument, actually. Elizabeth Abbot in her book A History of Celibacy tells us that this practice was common among the faithful in many religious traditions – including Christianity (e.g. the priestly vow of chastity). Perhaps Luther regarded himself in this light, but as
a Protestant could not join the priesthood – which would have also required him to be obedient and live in poverty – neither of which appealed to him. He enjoyed being a philanthropist and gave generously to charity. Whatever the reason for his being alone, I am just thankful for his wonderful music. His oratorios are sublime.
p.s. a correction to my comment, last paragraph:
I meant to write: “Perhaps *as a Lutheran* Handel regarded himself in this light, but as a Protestant could not joint the priesthood …”
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